Teensy-Weensy, Itty-Bitty Shoes

Women's shoes in the early nineteenth century were ideal for doing nothing.

HUMANITIES, March/April 2008, Volume 29, Number 2

The English writer Frances Trollope (mother of novelist Anthony), who lived and traveled in the United States from 1827 to 1831, remarked of American women, “They never wear muffs or boots, and appear extremely shocked at the sight of walking shoes and cotton stockings, even when they have to step to their sleighs over ice and snow. They walk in the middle of winter with their poor little toes pinched into a miniature slipper, incapable of excluding as much moisture as bedew a primrose.”

At a time in history when American women were toiling as pioneers, vocalizing for abolition and suffrage, and making inroads into the business world of the nineteenth century, there was an equally strong social pull to elevate them to an ideal of helplessness. For middle-class women, and those aspiring to be middle class, one mark of gentility was how delicately, and how uselessly, they were shod.

A pair of pale pink, satin slippers with blunt toes
Photo caption

Satin slippers, early nineteenth century.

Irma Bowen Textile Collection, University Museum, University of New Hampshire.

From left to right, gold shoe with a small heel and cuts across the lip, dark red shoe, and black shoe with a round buckle and high heel
Photo caption

Left: gold kid slip-on shoe, 1876. Right: Black kid shoe, 1880-1890.

Peabody Essex Museum

Preserved at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, is a small box, only six inches by ten, and three inches deep, covered with white satin and mounted with a hinged glass lid. Beneath the fastening, stamped in gold, are the initials “C. F. W.” and a date, “Sept. 1, 1858.” The inside is divided into two compartments, also lined with white satin, and laid in these like Snow White in her glass coffin, are a pair of dainty white satin shoes with rosettes of papery silk, worn but once. Their thin satin uppers are lined with linen and only barely stiffened round the back, and a long narrow flimsy ribbon is attached to each side, meant to cross and tie round the wearer’s slender ankle. The soles, no thicker than thin cardboard, are only two inches wide at the widest point, and there are no heels at all. This frail footwear belonged to Caroline Frances Fitz of Ipswich, Massachusetts, and was worn at her marriage to Joseph Wheeler Woods in 1858.

Looking at these little slippers, one is led to imagine that the bride who enshrined them must have been a delicate, angelic little creature like the young wives in countless early nineteenth-century magazine stories. In these tiny satin shoes, the new Mrs. Woods stepped into a new identity as the moral guardian of her household, gliding quietly about, making all things neat and orderly in preparation for her husband’s return, knowing that home ought to be a refuge for a man weary of wrestling with the wicked world.

A pair of deep green satin flat shoes, with a bow on the lip
Photo caption

Green silk satin, linen, and leather shoe, circa 1810.

Peabody Essex Museum

This is a cliché, of course, but it was still one pervasive enough in early nineteenth-century America to influence the kind of shoes women were wearing then and a long time thereafter. In a collection of early nineteenth-century women’s shoes, almost none are any more substantial than Miss Fitz’s hallowed white satin wedding shoes. If not actually made of satin, they are very probably silk taffeta or wool serge, or at best thin Morocco leather, and, like the wedding shoes, they have paper-thin soles. Of course it is true that today’s collections represent pretty much only the dressiest shoes. But even the gaiter boots are not very stout by modern standards. They, too, are made of cloth, with a mere scrap of Morocco or patent leather at the heel and toe to defend against wear. It is hard to believe that such shoes were worn even indoors, considering how cold and drafty old houses must have been. Surely no one could have walked—let alone worked—in them outdoors.

But contemporary accounts suggest that American women did indeed wear their thin little shoes and gaiters for everything but work so heavy it was beneath the reach of fashion. “The Cheap Dress,” a story published in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1845, even suggests that substantial shoes were not commonly available to women in the United States. The narrator, Mrs. Allanby, has foolishly made a dress of cheap fabric. It has shrunk and faded at the first wash, so she decides to use it up as a gardening outfit.

The completion of my equipment was to be the ugliest, clumsiest, stoutest pair of boots ever intended for a lady’s feet—boots that had been expressly imported for me from some provincial place in Great Britain by an English friend on the hypothesis that the slight, pretty articles manufactured for our use on this side of the ocean, were the cause of a national tendency to consumption. Hitherto I had rebelled against wearing them, but now . . . the first warm, bright day suitable for my out-door employments, came on, and I incased myself in my cheap dress, which did not quite join company with the tops of my English boots.

Inevitably, while Mrs. Allanby is out working in the garden, an old family friend comes to call, and worse still, she brings with her an extremely well-dressed young man. Mrs. Allanby is deeply embarrassed to be seen in her shrunken dress and clumsy boots by so elegant a visitor, but as her friend later reminds her, her real mistake was in letting her husband see her dressed that way. “No woman should present herself before her husband in a dishabille which would cause her to blush if seen in it by any other man,” she said. “The continuance of affection depends upon a strict attention to what may be trifles in themselves—”

Why on earth should a wife’s wearing an old dress and thick boots for gardening put her husband’s affection in jeopardy? To answer this, one must understand how thoroughly differentiated the spheres of men and women were believed to be in the early nineteenth century. Men had a virtual monopoly on the intellectual gifts that fit a person for business, the arts, and science: the outdoor sphere of public life. But the heart, the seat of emotional life, was undeveloped in the male, and the “baser passions” were a constant temptation. Balancing this was a view of women that considered them rich in emotion but correspondingly weak in intellect. A woman’s loving heart, disciplined by religious principles, made her preeminent in the private sphere of the home.

According to nineteenth-century magazines, it was a woman’s duty to make that home such a haven of beauty, order, and domestic peace that the men who lived there could never be lured away to drink and gamble (or worse) in bars and clubs. As the central figure of that home, the woman herself must also be beautiful—or at least beautifully dressed—and pretty shoes were part of her allure. Demorest’s Monthly Magazine warned its middle-class readers in 1883 that “the chaussure is another item of the home dress, which should never be neglected, for it is certain never to escape observation. A shrewd writer says, ‘Many a man’s heart has been kept from wandering by the bow on his wife’s slipper.’ Daintily dressed feet are always admired, so we would advise all young wives, and older ones, too, for that matter, to look well to the ways of their feet and dress them in pretty house and neat slippers.”

A woman’s appearance was not merely a tool of attraction. It was also considered the key to her moral disposition. Just as clothing that was too costly and fashionable betrayed a cold or straying heart, ill-fitting and unattractive clothing exposed the wearer as lazy, thoughtless, and disorganized, and proved that she was not properly managing her moral and domestic responsibilities. Shoes lent themselves naturally to this kind of symbolism, being part of the costume that was in the common course of things very easily soiled, and though sometimes hidden, being likely to be seen eventually. Neat, pretty shoes appear in nearly every description of the ideal woman well into the twentieth century.

Shoes carried an additional meaning in the mid-nineteenth century, however, because they could be used to diminish the apparent size of the foot. Small feet, along with small hands, were one of the traditional attributes of a gentlewoman. In order to claim this title, many women apparently wore shoes as small as they could manage to squeeze into. Charles Dickens noticed during his visit to the United States in 1842 that “the pinching of thin shoes” was part of a fashionable American lady’s appearance.

illustration of a huge foot with a tiny shoe balanced on its big toe, with a castle in the far distance
Photo caption

Giant Foot and Shoe by Charles Waller

Flimsy shoes or gaiters worn painfully short and tight were a very real discouragement to physical activity, and as a result they tended to foster both dependence and domesticity. Even if a woman disregarded the pressures of fashion and wore shoes that fit, cloth gaiters and shoes with thin soles and no heels were not comfortable for real walking, either in the wet grass of the country or on the irregular cobbles and paving stones of urban streets.

No one describes the difference between men and women’s shoes better than George Sand, the French novelist, who in 1831 began dressing as a man in order to save money and still be able to attend the theater in Paris (women were not allowed in the pit, which was all Sand could afford). Sand got the idea from her mother, who had done the same thing as a young married woman, because dressing as a boy halved the household’s bills.

On the Paris pavement I was like a boat on ice. My delicate shoes cracked open in two days, my pattens sent me spilling, and I always forgot to lift my dress. I was muddy, tired and runny-nosed, and I watched my shoes and my clothes—not to forget my little velvet hats, which the drainpipes watered—go to rack and ruin with alarming rapidity.  . . . So I had a “sentry-box coat” cut for me out of a heavy drab stuff, with matching trousers and waistcoat. With a gray hat and wide woolen tie, I was the perfect little first-year student. I can’t convey how much my boots delighted me: I’d have gladly slept in them, as my brother did when he was a lad and had just got his first pair. With those steel-tipped heels I was solid on the sidewalk at last. I dashed back and forth across Paris and felt I was going around the world.

Why did American women in particular feel obliged to wear thin slippers at all times and in all seasons when English women apparently felt free to match their shoes to their circumstances? It may be that the very fluidity of American class structure increased the pressure on women to be dependent and ladylike. In England, supposing a duchess chose to cultivate her own garden, she could wear what she pleased, and there would still be no doubt about her rank. She might be an eccentric duchess, but all the same she was a duchess.

A pair of beige shoes, topped with velvet ribbon and a small charm in the shape of an anchor
Photo caption

Beige glazed kid shoe, 1835-1850.

Peabody Essex Museum

In a democracy where hereditary rank did not exist, however, dress and deportment were the most immediate ways of distinguishing anyone’s social class. The desire to rise, to “make good,” encouraged dressing above one’s condition, and Mrs. Trollope reported that American women spent proportionally more money on clothes than did their English cousins. When society rewarded women who managed to dress like ladies, and being ladylike meant cultivating an aura of physical delicacy and restricting oneself to indoor pursuits, then thin indoor footwear was bound to be widely worn while heavy shoes would be shunned, even when it made sense to wear them.

But by the 1840s, some bold women were ignoring the limitations of their footwear, refusing to stay at home, and standing up in public against slavery and for women’s rights. Fashion responded. After all, the shoe must go where the woman goes! By February 1860, Godey’s Lady’s Book reported “that thick walking boots for ladies are universal this winter, and no one will be required by elegance or fashion to shiver along in thin soles.” A new world was about to open up for women: the world of the outdoors, of sports, of business, and public action. The Cinderella age of the slipper was over. The age of the boot had begun.